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At 89, Marine Corps veteran Carol J. Schwartz needs a constant caregiver and her daughter, Lani Young of Sonoma, needed some relief from that role.

Securing a Veterans Affairs pension tailored to their needs gave both women a life-changing lift.

"Definitely," said Young, 64, who works full-time and has been the primary caregiver for her mother, who has dementia and cannot be left alone.

"What this means for us is we can move into a larger place," Young said. The two women have been sharing Young's one-bedroom cottage since May, when Schwartz, a lifelong Southern Californian, moved in.

Schwartz, who served as a Marine Corps office worker in San Diego during World War II, was approved last month for a special aid and attendance pension based on her need for assistance with daily activities.

With more than half of Sonoma County's 32,400 veterans age 65 and older, the VA pension benefit is becoming increasingly important, said Chris Bingham, the county's veterans service officer.

Ten to 20 people a week are coming to the Veterans Service Office on Westwind Boulevard in Santa Rosa to get help applying for the aid and attendance pension, which pays a single veteran like Schwartz up to $20,795 a year and $24,651 for a veteran with one dependent.

The caregiver provision boosts the maximum annual pension by $8,330 over a basic pension for low-income elderly or disabled veterans who served at least one day during a wartime period.

There is a smaller enhancement for veterans who are confined to their homes. Pensions are paid to veterans or their surviving spouses.

But the aid and attendance pension is underutilized, Bingham said, because many veterans are unaware of it. "The VA does a poor job of educating vets on their benefits," he said.

"People's heads spin," Bingham said, when they learn an aging relative can get financial help — which varies according to their income — for caregiving services.

The pensions are for disabilities not related to military service, he said.

California's 1.8 million veterans received a total of $4.2 billion in 2012 in compensation for service-related disabilities, deaths and pensions, according to VA data.

One-third of the state's veterans served during the Vietnam era.

Sonoma County veterans received $61 million in those types of compensation last year, the VA said.

Bingham said his office secured $13.4 million worth of annual payments for disabilities and pensions in the fiscal year that ended on June 30, the 10th highest total among county veterans service offices.

His office's typical client is a Vietnam era veteran in his or her late 60s or 70s.

Applying for a VA pension is a complex process that veterans should not undertake without expert assistance, Bingham said, and his office holds weekly seminars on benefits for elderly veterans.

No one should pay for help applying for a VA pension, Bingham said. It's illegal to charge for assistance, but the law is not enforced, he said.

Free information is available online at www.scvets.org or by calling the county office at 565-5960.

The California Department of Veterans Affairs web site is at www.calvet.ca.gov and can be reached at 877-741-8532.

Lani Young said she worked for months on her mother's pension application, but it was approved less than a month after her claim was submitted.

The caregivers who stayed with her mother while Young worked 35 to 40 hours a week cost about $1,150 a month, and her mother had only a Social Security pension for income.

Schwartz, a descendent of the founders of Pasadena, was one of the first women to serve on an Angeles National Forest firefighting team. She also worked as a riveter in a Douglas aircraft factory before joining the Marines.

Her "biggest challenge" was raising four children, Young said, quoting her mother.

Young declined to say how much of a VA pension her mother received, but it met both their needs.

"I wanted more personal time," Young said. "She really appreciates it, too."

(You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com.)